Trenton — Rushing to beat a superior court deadline to turn over documents of an industry lobbying campaign to pack a new Science Advisory Board, yesterday afternoon the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced its 16 selections. Under a superior court order won by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) pursuant to the state Open Public Records Act, today DEP must surrender industry sponsorship letters and other behind-the-scenes communications to persuade the agency to pick its favored candidates,.
The stakes for industry are huge. In late 2008, former DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson abolished the Division of Science and Research, based in part on a recommendation of her Permit Efficiency Task Force. The Science Advisory Board (SAB) is supposed to substitute for the work formerly done by DEP scientists. The SAB will give industry a seat at the table to determine what and how science is used to support tighter regulation of chemicals and pollutants – decisions carrying multi-million dollar implications for affected corporations.
In the months following Jackson’s action there has been an intense lobbying scrum as powerful industrial interests, such as DuPont and the New Jersey Chemistry Council, worked to sway first Corzine appointees and later Christie officials to make industry-friendly SAB appointments. DEP fought to keep these lobbying efforts secret, denying a PEER public records request on the spurious grounds that information about pending Board appointments is analogous to job applicant forms and thus confidential, even though SAB members would not be DEP employees and would be unpaid. PEER sued DEP on September 29, 2009 for violating the Open Public Records Act. On February 18, 2010, Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg brushed aside DEP’s legal position as without merit and ordered the agency to provide the SAB materials to PEER. The documents are to be turned over to PEER this morning.
The newly named Science Advisory Board has DuPont employees and industry consultants in key slots. Perhaps to buffer anticipated criticism, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin enlarged the original 12-member SAB to 16 members, adding four academic scientists. According to DEP, the SAB was created to do provide external objective scientific guidance.
“The concern is that this outside board will be more of a venue for exercises in political science rather than environmental science,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, who sought the records. “For example, DuPont employees should never have been selected because they have huge economic interests in DEP science that backs drinking water standards, like PFOA and other toxics.” .
The Board includes subcommittees on water, ecological function, public health and climate change.
“There are no enforceable safeguards against industry using the Science Advisory Board to inject influence and otherwise delay, weaken, or derail DEP regulatory science, particularly risk assessments are used to set strict health standards and costly industry regulations,” Wolfe added. “The secrecy surrounding the selection process only reinforces our concerns.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability